You may have heard the rumors – that the remaining crew members of the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel Red Dwarf will be returning to our screens next year for a new six part series – and I can now confirm that they are definitely true because I was one of the lucky few who got tickets to the filming! Seeing as it was taking place at the famous Shepperton Studios, I had to go, as they’re only about a mile from my house. But that didn’t guarantee me entry of course. I had to enter the lottery just like everyone else.
About two months ago, show co-creator Doug Naylor tweeted that there’d be an announcement about the ticket availability the following Friday. Friday came around and that announcement turned out to be the lottery announcement itself, telling us to go another site at 2pm that day. 2pm rolls around and the site dies a horrible death from too many people trying to get tickets. Luckily, I was clever enough to start following the ticket company on Twitter where they announced that they were “experiencing technical difficulties” and that they’d accept applications via phone, email and Twitter. So I sent mine off and crossed my fingers. A couple of days later, after having found out that all the tickets for the filming of all six episodes were snapped up in about 20 minutes, I was very relived and excited to get an email confirming my tickets for the filming of the first episode!
Over the next few weeks, Robert Llewellyn tweeted about his excitement of reprising the role of Kryten the robot, giving a few clues here and there, snapping a few pics of his costume fitting (there’s a video too) and blogging the build up. Danny John-Jules joined in the fun too once the rehearsals were underway, joking with his followers that he was having an awful time being back on set. After what seemed like an age, the day finally rolled around and we headed off to the studios. A small false start later (we went to the wrong entrance) we were wandering through the backlot of the studios, past an old wild west set and another where Keanu Reeves filmed a lot of 47 Ronin, to the hospitality room for a quick beverage, where there was the largest gathering of geeks I’ve seen in a long time.
After about half an hour, we were all ushered across the parking lot and into the studio itself – a big warehouse containing three and two halves sets. The floor manager, Jim, introduced us to the warm up guy Tom Price (who is also PC Andy from Torchwood), who in turn introduced us to the cast. First out was Chris Barrie, looking very dapper in his shiny new uniform, followed by Craig Charles in his trademark scruffy leathers. Next out was Danny John-Jules, in full character, squealing and dancing like only the Cat can, quickly followed by Robert Llewelyn, also in full character, shuffling along with his funny walk looking bemused. Tom then introduced us the show’s co-creator and writer Doug Naylor who had a special message for us all. He explained how filming in front of a live studio audience was a really big deal for him, and something for which he had to fight the shows producers (UK TV channel Dave – yes, the channel really is called Dave). After the success of 2009?s three part special, Back to Earth – it still has the highest viewing figures for a non-terrestrial show in the UK – Dave wanted more, but they’re worried about plots being leaked online before the show goes out in the autumn. So Doug gave us a personal plea to keep our mouths shut, cameras pocketed, and tweets non-spoilery, if we wanted this new run to continue – hinting that there might be more than one new series coming. I took all my willpower to stop me taking a sneaky photo, but the stakes are too high, so all the photos in this post are from official sources.
Tom quickly ran through how the evening would pan out, told us a few jokes and teased us with a quiz for later on, while the crew got themselves set up for the first scene. This gave us chance to have a look at those new sets. I won’t give away anymore than you can see in the photos, but it’s safe to say the crew have found “another new part of the ship to live in” and it’s very red indeed and seems to be going for the lived-in look, rather than the crisp cleanliness of earlier series. The bits we could see were the bunk room, the control room, a bit of a corridor, a medical bay and a third full set constructed just for this episode. A quick signal from Jim meant they were ready to roll the cameras, so Tom shut up and sat down with the rest of us to enjoy the show. From the outset, we got the feeling that this was vintage Dwarf, full of great dialogue with two characters trading lines back and forth, punctuated with the occasional, perfectly timed gag or one liner. The writers managed to pluck a story element that wouldn’t be out of place in a regular sit-com and thrust it 3 million years into the future, amplifying the absurdity, but still remaining totally relevant and flowing beautifully through the whole episode.
One of the biggest risks with having the live studio audience is that it really shows the quality of the material. I’ve been to the recordings of several chat shows, where they’ll do 10 different gags and only use the one that gets the biggest laugh in the final show. There’s not much time for that in a sit-com, so the gags have to be perfect – especially as they’ll often be shot more than once, whether it’s for a different camera angle or because of a technical problem or fluffed line. I found myself properly LOLing even on the 3rd or 4th take, so I think they’ll pass the test. Rimmer always seems to have the longest speeches so it was no surprise that Chris Barrie was the first to fluff a line, maybe it was just nerves as I bet none of them have had to do their stuff with a live audience for a while. They all settled into the flow very quickly though and were soon messing around like a bunch of schoolboys between takes. Kryten never seemed to break character, always referring to “Mr Lister, Sir” even when the cameras weren’t rolling and giving us little commentaries on what was happening. The Cat was shuffle dancing his way around the sets and Chris Barrie kept dropping into his perfect Kenneth Williams impression at any given moment, usually after fluffing his lines.
After 5 or 6 takes, the first scene was in the bag and we were shown a short bit of ‘VT’ (Video Tape, in case you didn’t know) of the next scene, while they prepared for the third scene. This took place in the control room, where the crew discovered the thing to carry this episode forward. Again, it gave the feeling of the older shows, before too much money was spent of special effects. There was the odd storyboard sketch include to show where the effects will be put in, but they were simple and over quickly allowing the team to concentrate on the (excellent) dialogue. After the VT was over, Tom was back with us engaging in some banter and finding out about us all. I was relieved he picked on the group next to me to be his sidekicks for evening, especially when he took the mickey out of them for only traveling 10 miles to be there – I could walk home quicker than they could drive to theirs!
He started up what would become the main theme of his sections of the evening – a Red Dwarf quiz, with a model of the Dwarf itself plus one of Starbug, both signed by the cast, as the prizes. After some struggle as to exactly what format the quiz would take and a few false starts, we were off. Now, I like the show, a lot, but it was soon clear that to know the answers to these questions would take a level of geekery far beyond mine!
On to the third scene which took place on the special set, with some more great one liners, expertly delivered. There seemed to be a lot of takes for this one. There were only two cameras on the set and they wanted wide and tight angles on all the characters so they run through the entire scene many times – but the jokes are still funny. Funnier still are the cast playing the “Ooo look, what’s that funny camera thing doing pointing at me” game, and prompting pulling silly faces, picking their noses and generally messing around. Once the scene was in the can, Doug Naylor came back out to explain that, usually for a studio audience show, they were now going to skip ahead 10 minutes in the episode and record a later scene on this same set, to avoid the extra costume changes and camera set ups. He let us know the important bits so we understood what was happening and out came Tom again to continue the quiz.
When they were ready to continue, we had our first meeting with the two guest stars in this episode – one male, one female. They both gave sterling performances, the bloke especially, given the character he was playing. This scene was again played out several times to cover all the angles and then we get a short bit of VT to finish it off before Tom pops up again to continue the quiz. By this point the audience had been split into two halves and our team had lost the first round. We were then told that we’re now going back in time to film the missing chunk of the show and suddenly all that stuff made sense! Part of it was another section of VT that had been recorded earlier that day, and the cast hadn’t seen it yet, so they all came out and sat right in front of us to watch it! Some of the audio hadn’t been dubbed on properly, so we missed a few gags, but at least that’ll be something to look forward to when it airs in the autumn.
A bit more quizzing, which our half won this time, and Tom sets us up for the finalé. After the final scene is done, he reckons we should all sing the theme tune! So we have a few practice runs – left half, right half, all the men, all the women, all together and finish it off with a nice Mexican wave! He also then pulls out a special prize for one last round of the quiz – an actual prop used in the episode, which went to a lucky postman from Wales, and then we were on to the final scene. Ending where we started in the bunk room and tying up all the loose ends nicely, this feels like a proper series VII, as if it was filmed just after the end of VI and not something like 15 years later. When Tom gets the word that they’re happy with the takes, he gives us the signal and we launch into the theme tune, singing our hearts out, and Chris, Craig, Danny and Robert come out to conduct us and join in the singing.
After a round of thank yous, we all stand up, stretch out and try to regain some feeling in our legs, before the mad dash to the toilets to release a four-hour build up, and then heading home – a quick journey for me, much longer for others who have come from Wales, Scotland and even The Netherlands to be a part of the new series of Red Dwarf. I wish I could go to the filming of every episode, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until September to watch them along with everybody else.